Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Reflections on Parenthood and Ed Tech

For the last 17 years, I've been occupied professionally with educating other peoples' children. That all changed a couple of weeks ago, when God blessed my wife and I with a daughter. I feel as though my life in education is just beginning, since I know have at least 18 years to focus my efforts on educating one child instead of basically starting over every few years. Obviously I have done a lot of reflecting about my views of education for my own child and as I write this, I'm thinking about how this personal endeavor may influence my professional practice. Here are some thoughts.

I've long had an image as a tech guy, and I've earned the image, as I have advocated for student computer use for my entire career, and more recently have been outspoken about the potential benefits of video gaming, mobile technology and social media. That being said, I have always worked with teenagers who, by and large are already enthusiastic about technology use and I believe the use of technology in institutions of education can help these teens become more involved in learning and can potentially drive better pedagogy. Now, here's where my personal and professional viewpoint would seem to diverge.

I'm actually ultra-conservative about technology use among children and I convinced my wife to grant our daughter a 100% screen-free life until the age of 8. That means no television (educational or otherwise), no videogames, no ebooks, no screens at all. That would be in line with the strictest opinion from pediatricians. The most permissive would limit screen time until age 2. Why do I want to follow the strictest opinion? The answers are based on both my professional and personal experience.

In a nutshell, I believe that kids raised with highly limited media are more imaginative, better behaved, and better able to succeed academically and professionally. This opinion was cemented in college when I was cycling with a friend. When I made a casual reference to a TV show, he didn't know what I was talking about because he was raised without television. I also realized at that time that this guy was a tremendous athlete in spite of having asthma, a gifted student of many subjects and an all-around creative person with a great sense of humor. I wanted to live in a world with more people like him, and I started watching less and less TV.

There is really no upside to introducing screens. It may be cute to see a 3 year old playing with an iPad, but that only proves how easy it is to figure out an iPad, and how unnecessary it is to have a class at an elementary school on an iPad. Personally I find it horrifying when parents constantly give their kids electronic pacifiers, going as far to always have a screen on, even while driving in the car. It's also horrifying to me (and I see this all the time) to see parents staring at their smartphones while their kid plays in the park. I am determined not to become that sort of parent and I don't want any person, let alone my own child, think they are less important that my smartphone. I have also seen schools resort to electronic pacifiers, and that is infuriating as well. Honestly, I'm also complicit in this, as I allow video games in the library. Though I see some positives, especially when I manage to tie a game into a life-lesson, but much of the time, its simply the path of least resistance. Games allow kids to kill time without much benefit to them.

The reality is that we public educators get more an more kids are being parented by media and devices. It's just sad, and I don't believe anymore the positive spin about the digital natives. They're not learning social skills such as making eye-contact and engaging in scintillating conversation or have clever things to say in writing. The kids that do have conversational skills and creative abilities...they are almost always readers. The kids that have great social skills...their parents talk and interact with them. Schools need to bring out more of these skills and not resort to electronic pacification.

So, does this effect my outlook on technology in education?  Not really. I still thing secondary students should be taught explicit skills about using the Internet as an information source, establishing a positive digital footprint and learning Digital Citizenship, etc. These are not just buzzwords to me. However, we're fooling ourselves if we think these digital natives are going to thrive in the future if we as educators don't give them something on top of their comfort with technology.

As a parent, I frankly I will not rely on schools to fully train my daughter for the complex, high tech future. I have to provide a solid foundation for her, giving her lots of books, talking with her, playing chess, doing science experiments to foster curiosity, etc. When I finally do introduce a computer into her life, I want her to see it as a serious work tool and not merely a toy. I want her to understand how computers work, before she learns to waste time on games, videos, etc. I plan on modelling this behavior by using a computer or device only when it serves a purpose, and not just to kill time.

As a high school librarian, always admired good auto shop teachers. They wanted their students to understand cars just as the kids were learning to drive. There students learned practical problem solving skills that applied to life in general. This is the way I think we should approach computers as well. Kids should learn how to troubleshoot and work out creative solutions within applications they use and create their own applications. However, most students just don't get this kind of training at school.

I see the focus on standards and testing as a big obstacle to achieving any kinds of results in so called "21st Century Skills." It's hard to find time for the things I think are important for young people, when there are so many arbitrary standards that are assessed annually. I'm not against testing and standards, but I do wish school systems were more flexible in how they teach and assess them.

I'll continue to promote the reading of books, recruiting kids into chess club, encouraging Apps programming, demonstrating my love for learning on all subjects, talking to kids about their mission in life and how to accomplish it. These are the things I will always to for my daughter, but will only be able to do for a small percentage of the kids I see at school.   It's not a perfect world, but I plan on making the best of it.


  1. Mazel Tov! How wonderful to have some summer time with your baby before the DISD school year revs up!

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